Our book today is one of those little treasures that crop up so regularly at my beloved Brattle Bookshop: a slightly battered copy of The New Yorker War Album from 1942, this one inscribed as a present in 1942 in Washington, D.C. by a man named Butch to his “skipper”: “Here’s a few smiles and belly laughs to you from a Beta shipmate who thinks you’ve been one of the grandest and jolliest brothers ever.”
Paging through these cartoons brings a very different war-world vividly alive again. America was new to the war, and the editors at The New Yorker faced a very tricky task: they had to walk a line between tension-breaking levity and the gravity underlying American young men and women fighting and dying overseas. There’s as little outright racist propaganda (in this volume, anyway) as you could imagine possible; instead, most of the humor here revolves around the strange incongruities the war was imposing on the staid and comfortable middle-class. Repeated over and over in this volume is one of the readiest of those incongruities: the sudden empowerment of women, both in domestic manufacturing jobs and in uniform – the latter being the joke at work in a clever cartoon by New Yorker stalwart Richard Taylor, who has a meek little husband entering a room and hastily telling three uniformed women “Please don’t get up.”
Another juicy irregularity of the war was the influx into the U.S. armed forces of, shall we say, non-military types – weedy college-boys who’ve somehow lived through basic training and have now found themselves in Europe and Asia colliding with their less-lettered superiors, perfectly captured in a great cartoon by Perry Barlow showing a group of soldiers gathered around a searchlight, with the caption reading, “Now what the hell kind of talk is that – ‘pierce the gloom’?”
Of course, the simple sight of domestic turmoil is itself a fruitful ground for cartoonists – especially the great Gluyas Williams, whose full-page mini-dramas require no more than an explanatory sub-title before the viewer is caught up in the kind of multi-layered mute storytelling Williams did better than anybody, as in his “Hotel Desk” installment of his ongoing “The National Capital” series, showing a stereotypical (and not at all wartime-related) overwhelmed hotel lobby.
And for me, the greatest delight of this War Album is the frequency of cartoons by the mighty Helen Hokinson, whose flutey, oblivious matrons attack their morale-building domestic volunteer work with the same gusto as they attack everything else. Busily filling book-lockers with titles to go overseas, they ask with their undaunted optimism, “I wonder if we couldn’t convert some of the boys to Henry James?” Gathered in their Women’s Club ranks to listen to a stern-faced uniformed woman, they hear first their chairwoman obliviously say, “Miss Whitehead has come to tell us how to amuse sailors.” Touching on the daily headlines that have now faded into historical footnotes, one comfortable matron tells another, “It makes me so mad when I think how long I’ve been patient with India.” So great is Hokinson’s genius that she can pull warm smiles out of even the fear of an open-ended war, and it was a pleasure to be reminded of that while strolling through this volume. I hope Butch’s brother-in-arms enjoyed it as much as I did.